THE PRESS — faint but pursuing — has covered the Pope's visit to the Far East with an astonishing generosity. But they have tended to emphasise two aspects of the countries he has been visiting.
The Philippines is the only Catholic country in the Far East and is a fairly squalid sort of dictatorship. In Japan the, Christians represent less than one per cent of the population. Both true. Yet the story of Christianity in that part of the world is one of heroic failure, of frustration and of great terror.
The Philippines became (mostly) Catholic when it was a Spanish colony. The air of political corruption that hangs over the place was set there largely by the Americans when they, in a fit of high minded imperialism. took the place.• I am afraid it is an ill run place of great rural poverty and considerable urban corruption. It is beautiful in a lush way.
It's the sort of place where you find a huge and noble baroque church in a jungle clearing, quite without windows. a dirt floor. an air of of desertion that seems to attend the priest himself. The old churches — intra muros — in Manila, the capital. mostly got ruined in the war. But it was here that the Pope celebrated by his beatification of Lorenzo Ruiz one of the great might-have-beens in history. For quite apart from wars and Western stupidity and greed and Communism, there should be a sizeable Catholic presence in the East. The sterner Asians. especially those touched by the discipline of the Confuscian ethic, make superb Christians, much better than Beatles make Indian transcendentalists.
In China the Jesuit Father Ricci who must have been the greatest of all missionaries. learned Chinese and went into the Middle Kingdom — and by that the Chinese meant it was the middle of he world.
He started dressed as one of their bonzes or priests. The ruling classes despised their own vaguely Buddhist priesthood. And then he twigged. He emerged as a great scholar in sober silk and became so admired that his caligraphy became treasured. He got an honoured position in Peking where he died.
The admirable Francis Xavier never got to China. He had the same experience in Japan. He came as a humble priest and nobody cared less; he returned as a noble scholar and was accepted by that most fastidious of people.
In China the infinite promise was killed dead by a squabble between the Jesuits who had begun God's business there and the Friars who were not in a giving mood. The Jesuits wanted to let the Chinese continue to revere their ancestors at domestic altars and there was dispute about the written character for an absolute God. The Chinese had not got one. After unkindly dispute in Rome, the Friars won. The Imperial Court in Peking said pooh to the whole business and the Catholic priests became missionaries in place of equals who admired the Chinese culture rather more than they did the Italian. Perhaps nothing would have happened on a grand scale,
but there developed a small and admirable Chinese church which. uncertain of its ultimate loyalty on earth. is yet alive. What happened in Japan was not very different.
JAPAN WHEN the Christians came in the 16th Century was ruled by the hereditary Shoguns. They lived in Edo (Tokyo). There were also the Emperors living in elegant poverty in Kyoto totally without power.
When St Francis Xavier got to Japan he was courteously received. (Who okayed the Jesuit expense accounts?) The religion of Japan was ethical and self-disciplinary rather than God centred. They did not at first object to these peculiar but interesting foreigners. Indeed they found them intellectually exciting.
Several of the great daimyos (territorial lords) took up the new idea of God. When Japan invaded Korea in what must have been the most desrructive handto-hand war in history. one of the two Japanese generals was a Christian and fought under the banner of the cross. Nobody actually won as a result.
But Catholicism spread like periwinkle. I think some of the lords adopted it as an antiShogun gesture. And then suddenly it seemed dangerous.
The Shogun was a great and ugly man called ltcyasu Tokugawa. He was Japan's equivalent to Elizabeth I. He thought Christianity might contain the seeds of rebellion, but far more important. he thought it might be the spearhead of a Latin take-over. After all there was Macao in China and Goa in India and the empire of the Philippines. So 'he banned Christianity.
The penalty for recusancy in Japan made Tyburn look tolerable and Tower Hill a luxury. They were slow roasted, crucified, and variously tortured to death. Lorenzo Ruiz. a Philippino missionary was one of those who died. He was lowered by his feet into a narrow pit, blocked in and left. The pain, the panic, the seosory deprivation — it is said that it took him three days to die. A few of the foreign missionaries recanted. Alas, it is known who. They were given a wife and a house and told to get on with it.
Then Japan closed its doors on the world. You can see the reasons for their policy. Their cruelty was part of their indifference to, almost glorification of suffering and death.
The Christians were executed for their disobedience and their breakage of the chain of loyalty that led up remorselessly to the Shogun. Fifteen other martyrs were beatified with Blessed Lorenzo. nine of them Japanese. There is already quite a crowd of Japanese on our altars. And very cool and collected and well mannered saints they must be.
THIS LEADS to a story that is